History Buffs Commemorate 150 Years Since Gettysburg Battle
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
This week brings Independence Day and also the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. It's widely known as the turning point in the Civil War, but since then it's seen other kinds of battles, this small Pennsylvania town, over how this historic site should be properly preserved and remembered.
Marie Cusick of member station WITF has more.
MARIE CUSICK, BYLINE: Thousands of visitors descended on Gettysburg this week to bring the battle back to life.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Fire.
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CUSICK: The booming canon sounds and re-enactors make it seem like 1863. Visitors see the same rolling fields outlined by stone walls and split rail fences.
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CUSICK: For the anniversary, thousands of people marched together to commemorate Pickett's Charge, the doomed Confederate assault.
Retiree Sara Stirk of Delaware is a self described Civil War nut. She says walking through uneven terrain and waste-high underbrush gave her a new appreciation of what the soldiers went through.
SARA STIRK: It's rough. This is harder than I expected it to be.
CUSICK: Despite efforts to make the battlefield as authentic as possible it hasn't always been this way. Katie Lawhon is with the National Park Service, which manages the battlefield. She says almost immediately after the battle, some parts were preserved while others weren't.
KATIE LAWHON: In its early years, it was only the Union positions that were being saved.
CUSICK: Twenty-five years passed before the Confederate positions were saved too. And in the meantime, souvenir shops and restaurants began to pop up in the space between those battle lines.
Jerry Bennett is a Gettysburg historian.
JERRY BENNETT: It was a great place to put a motel, right in the middle of it, because you're sleeping on hallowed ground that night, if you're a tourist.
CUSICK: After the war a trolley was also built. It carried tourists directly onto the battlefield. But with a push toward preservation, the trolley eventually wound up in federal court. In a landmark 1896 ruling, the Supreme Court held that the federal government could seize private land. The decision established a precedent for modern eminent domain laws.
Katie Lawhon says there are still about 600 acres of privately owned land within the 6,000 acre park.
LAWHON: We still work with willing sellers, to try to buy these parcels, one by one.
CUSICK: The preservation efforts go beyond commemorating the Civil War. The park has a rich military history into the 20th century. At the onset of World War I, future-President Dwight D. Eisenhower trained soldiers here. And during World War II, the site housed German prisoners of war.
BOB BERRY: I love Gettysburg. I always have. It's one of the most fascinating places on Earth.
CUSICK: Bob Berry came up for the anniversary from Virginia. He comes frequently and says he's happy to see the most recent upgrades to the visitor's center. But it's not hard to find North-South animosity still simmering. Mike Hanners is from Georgia. This is his fourth visit to Gettysburg and he says it will be his last. He wishes there were more Confederate flags around.
MIKE HANNERS: Now, you see two Confederate flags in the whole town of Gettysburg, which is a rotten shame.
CUSICK: Bob Berry of Virginia agrees the South is not fairly represented. Among its 400-or-so monumental sculptures the majority represent Union troops. Yet he remains a dedicated history buff, and says the battle is critical moment worth remembering.
BERRY: The Civil War, a lot of people hate it because of what it stood for. But if it hadn't been for the Civil War, we wouldn't be what we are today.
CUSICK: The historical commemorations will continue later this year. November 19th marks the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln's famous Gettysburg Address.
For NPR News, I'm Marie Cusick.
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